At least eight Michigan school districts are questioning whether constricting budgets might force them to pass on an ambitious, $39 million effort to put a laptop computer in the hands of every sixth-grader across the state. Despite the outcry, however, Gov. Jennifer Granholm continues to back the program.

Called Freedom to Learn, the one-to-one computing initiative is seen by many as the next step toward putting a laptop into the hands of every K-12 student throughout the state.

But The Detroit News reported Oct. 6 that officials in some of the metro area’s largest districts–including Detroit, Dearborn, Livonia, Plymouth, Southfield, Warren Consolidated, and Armada–are leery of hidden costs associated with maintaining the machines and fear the program will not last more than a year. eSchool News has learned that an eighth Michigan district–the Saginaw Public Schools–is also apprehensive about the program.

State officials estimate it will cost schools approximately $25 per student to participate in the program, but some educators contend that figure falls well short of the actual price.

Ken Siver, a spokesman for the Southfield Public Schools–a district serving 10,300 students and more than 1,000 sixth graders–criticized legislators for not providing enough funding to cover the cost of outfitting the district’s older buildings with wireless internet access and other expenditures, including the maintenance and security of such machines.

Siver estimates the seven buildings serving sixth-graders in Southfield would have to spend an average of $80,000 apiece on infrastructure alone.

“We didn’t want to come across as negative,” he said. “On the surface, the idea sounds great. But it’s a gift that’s not really a gift.”

Maintenance of the laptops is another issue.

Although $25 a head might be enough to put a computer in the hands of every sixth grader, it will cost much more than that to fully unlock the potential of the state’s investment, Siver predicts.

He expects schools will be forced to spend thousands of dollars on virus upgrades, software licensing, insurance for lost or stolen machines, and additional printing services, among other things. “The [computers] are not free,” he said. “Local districts really have been sort of blindsided by this.”

According to Siver, the legislature has put school districts in the difficult position of potentially disappointing students and parents who’ve already caught wind of the program and will be expecting the laptops come January.

But for Southfield, as with a number of districts across the state, the thought of spending even more money on technology raises concerns among school officials, who worry whether a recent rash of state-aid cuts will bleed further into education spending.

Budgets being what they are, schools can’t afford the level of commitment this type of one-to-one computing initiative demands, Siver said –at least not right now. “I just don’t think it was very well thought out,” he concluded.

After discussing his concerns in a board meeting last week, school officials in Southfield decided to delay their decision until the state unveils its final plan. Siver said Southfield is very interested in what other districts will do. But so far, few have made any public decision.

Educators in the Saginaw Public Schools–a 12,000 student district that also serves more than 1,000 sixth graders–said they, too, were worried about the prospect of unforeseen costs related to the program.

“We’re concerned that the infrastructure costs are not being considered by the state,” said Tony Gordon, supervisor of technology for the district.

Gordon, who used an online template provided by the Travis Bay Area Intermediate School District to calculate the price of Freedom to Learn in Saginaw, estimates participating schools there would spend in excess of $200,000 in the first year alone. By the third year, he said, that figure could climb to more than $1 million.

Technology leaders also are leery of a state contract that would limit them to a single-vendor solution, which would require a number of schools to weigh the costs of jumping from a PC-based to an Apple-based platform or vice versa.

Saginaw, for example, currently runs on an entirely Windows-based platform. That means if the state restricted its contract to, say, Apple iBook devices, every school in the district would have to convert its applications to work with Apple technology. “It would add a whole other area of complexity and costs,” Gordon noted.

Like many of the districts across Michigan, he said Saginaw will wait to make a decision until state officials release the final proposal. “But I’ve got a feeling we won’t jump on this,” he concluded. “There are significant hidden costs under the current [request for proposals].”

The governor’s office said it plans to forge ahead with the program, regardless of whether every school across the state supports it.

“It’s a voluntary program. If people choose not to participate, then we certainly understand,” said Granholm’s press secretary, Liz Boyd. She expects more schools will express an interest after the state releases its final guidelines, which are due in early November.

So far, state officials said they’re not sure how many schools will sign on.

“The proposal isn’t officially out there yet,” said Martin Ackley, public information officer for the state department of education. “We’ll have to wait and see whether school districts will participate or not.”

Proponents of the program, piloted last year in 13 districts throughout the state, told eSchool News in August that the laptops were well worth it.

At the Malcolm X Academy, a public K-8 institution in Detroit, educators used the pilot money to purchase an Apple iBook laptop with a high-speed processor for each of the school’s 65 sixth-graders.

In conjunction with a completely wireless network, which gives students instant access to the internet from anywhere on campus, school computer coordinator Jeffrey Robinson said officials used the machines to create a fully ubiquitous computing environment. Students now use the technology in class and at home to do assignments, conduct online research, and create multimedia projects.

“The program is going extremely well,” Robinson told reporters. “We have designed a curriculum where the technology is used now in almost every class.”

The students have free access to the internet from anywhere on campus, but the program lacked funding sufficient to procure wireless access from home, Robinson said. Instead, the computers are equipped with 56K modems that allow dial-up access from home.

Even in its infancy, Michigan’s program bears a striking resemblance to the progressive rollout of other one-to-one computing initiatives around the country.

In Maine, for example, former Gov. Angus King left his legacy in the form of a $30 million effort to provide laptops to all seventh and eighth graders across the state. That program delivered more than 17,000 Apple iBook computers to students last school year and is expected to yield another 16,000 machines statewide this fall.

So far, the program appears to be having a significant impact. A report released in May by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, which surveyed more than 8,000 students, 731 teachers, 154 principals, and 40 superintendents, said the laptops have enhanced the quality of classroom activities and have made learning more fun, according to students.

In Henrico County, Va., officials invested more than $18 million to deploy more than 23,000 wireless laptop computers to middle and high school students throughout the district. That initiative has met with similar approval from educators, who say the technology is well positioned to meet the evolving needs of today’s more digital learners.

In Michigan, students aren’t the only ones tapping into the wireless computing movement. The Michigan Gates Foundation Project recently helped spearhead a $6 million initiative called Leading the Future, which put a Palm 505 handheld computer into the hands of 4,000 school superintendents and principals so they could use real-time data to make better decisions.

And two years ago, nearly all of Michigan’s teachers received laptop computers through a $110 million initiative led by former Gov. John Engler, called the Teacher Technology Initiative. At the time, the initiative was to provide more than 91,000 computers for educators, the largest such state program of its kind.

Links:

Gov. Granholm’s web page
http://www.michigan.gov/gov

Michigan Department of Education
http://www.mde.state.mi.us

Travis Bay Area Intermediate School District spreadsheet
http://www.tbaisd.k12.mi.us/administration/Admin%20PDFs/Freedom%20to%20learn%20initiative%201.xls